HAVANA (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI is demanding greater freedom for the Catholic Church in Cuba during a Mass in the shrine of the island's communist revolution. He also denounces fanaticism that tries to impose its truth on others.
Benedict's homily was an unusually politicized papal message during Mass.
Benedict said people find freedom when they seek the truth that Christianity offers. He added, "On the other hand there are those who wrongly interpret this search for the truth, leading them to irrationality and fanaticism; they close themselves up in 'their truth' and try to impose it on others."
He didn't cite the government by name in Wednesday's message, but later urged Cuba to let the church more freely preach its message.
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HAVANA (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI wrapped up his visit to Cuba on Wednesday with a Mass before hundreds of thousands of people in the shrine of the Cuban revolution, hoping to revive the Catholic faith in this communist-run country and press for greater freedoms for his church.
It was a message he was likely to repeat at his other appointment Wednesday: a meeting with Fidel Castro.
Multitudes of Cubans filled Revolution Plaza for the morning Mass, shielding themselves from the blistering sun with umbrellas and waving flags big and small as Benedict passed by in his white popemobile. President Raul Castro and leading Cabinet officials had front-row seats, wearing white formal guayabera shirts.
"Viva Cuba! Viva el Papa!" the announcers shouted.
"The pope is something big for Cubans," said Carlos Herrera, a tourism worker who came to the plaza with his wife. "I come to hear his words, wise words for the Cuban people. That helps us. It gives us peace, it gives us unity. We do not want war."
But other suggested they were here for less than religious sentiment, told to attend by their employers in a country where mass shows of support for Fidel Castro have long been a mainstay of his half-century revolution.
"I'm here to support the leaders of our government, to support our revolution," said Dioleisis Fontela, a university professor.
In the days leading up to the pope's visit, some Cubans had said they resented that the government was now telling them to attend the Mass, despite preaching atheism until the early 1990s, and remaining skeptical about the church's role in society.
This time, a huge poster of Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, covered the facade of one of the buildings facing the plaza near Che. The icon has been the spiritual focus of Benedict's three-day visit, timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the diminutive statue.
Benedict visited the statue in a sanctuary near the eastern city of Santiago on Tuesday morning and prayed to her for greater freedom and renewal for all Cubans — another gentle nudge to the government to continue opening itself up to greater reforms.
"I have entrusted to the Mother of God the future of your country, advancing along the ways of renewal and hope, for the greater good of all Cubans," the pope said. "I have also prayed to the Virgin for the needs of those who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, those who are separated from their loved ones or who are undergoing times of difficulty."
A top official in Havana quickly responded: "In Cuba, there will not be political reform," said Vice President Marino Murillo, Cuba's economic czar.
Before arriving on his trip to Mexico and Cuba, Benedict asserted that Marxism as it was originally conceived is irrelevant for today's reality. Upon arriving on Cuban soil, however, his language was less direct, and he pressed instead for the Roman Catholic Church to play a greater role in Cuban life and for Cuba's people to enjoy greater freedoms.
The Vatican spokesman said the Holy See didn't take Murillo's comments as a rebuff to Benedict's call, noting that the pope isn't a political leader who can change laws or political systems. But he said Benedict does have some concrete hopes for the visit.
Ahead of the Mass, dissident blogs and Twitter accounts carried allegations that members of the Ladies in White opposition group had been prevented from attending, and that some opposition leaders were detained, reports that were reiterated by Amnesty International.
It was impossible to reach any of the group's leading members on Wednesday. Elizardo Sanchez, who monitors human rights on the island and acts as a de facto spokesman for the opposition, said he could not confirm any detentions because his mobile phone hadn't worked since shortly after the pope arrived on Monday. It was an experience shared by many other islanders and foreign journalists who could not make calls on jammed lines.
The Ladies were allowed to march peacefully the day before the pope arrived, but dozens were arrested in a similar march the week before.
During a nearly hour-long meeting Tuesday with Cuban President Raul Castro — twice the normal length of papal audiences with heads of state — Benedict asked that the government declare a holiday for Good Friday, when Catholics commemorate the death of Christ.
The request, like so much of this trip, was a follow-up of sorts to Cuba's decision to declare Christmas a national holiday in honor of John Paul's 1998 visit. Cubans hadn't had Christmas off for nearly 30 years.
"It's not that it changes reality in a revolutionary way, but it can be a sign of a positive step, as was the case of Christmas after John Paul's visit," said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
The government didn't give an immediate response, but Lombardi said it was natural for Cuba to take time to consider it. The government frequently declares holidays at the last minute, and Good Friday this year comes in less than two weeks, on April 6.
Benedict also raised "humanitarian" issues with Raul Castro, an apparent reference to political prisoners. Lombardi said he didn't know if individual cases were discussed.
Primarily, though, Benedict came to Cuba to try to win a greater place in society for the Catholic Church, which has been marginalized in the six decades of Castro family rule.
The island's Communist government never outlawed religion, but it expelled priests and closed religious schools after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. Tensions eased in the early 1990s when the government removed references to atheism in the constitution and let believers of all faiths join the Communist Party.
John Paul's 1998 visit further warmed relations. But despite years of lobbying, the church has virtually no access to state-run radio or television, is not allowed to administer schools and has not been granted permission to build new places of worship. Only about 10 percent of Cubans are practicing Catholics.
"Naturally a papal visit hopes to be an impulse for further steps, be it for the life of the church or for the good of society in its entirety," Lombardi told reporters, citing media, education and health care as areas where the church wants a greater say.
But in a country that once preached atheism and still is dominated by Marxist thought, that's a hard sell for the government and for ordinary Cubans alike.
Ana Blanco, a 47-year-old Havana resident, complained that people were being told to attend Wednesday's Mass, saying the pressure seemed odd in a country that in her early years taught her religion was wrong.
"Now there's this visit by the pope, and I don't agree with giving it so much importance or making anyone go to the Mass or other activities," the office worker said. "Before it was bad, now it's good. That creates confusion."
Associated Press writers Peter Orsi, Vivian Sequera, Anne-Marie Garcia and Laura Wides-Munoz contributed to this report.
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